Effete Liberal Book Club: A Darkhorse Candidate

Guys, my sense is that we were choosing between Foner and Howe for our next book, but I want to make a motion that we seriously consider Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth Of Other Suns. Frankly, I've been trying to avoid this book as the last thing I need is bigger pile. But listening to this interview with Wilkerson on Fresh Air, I just got this sense that I need to read this ASAP.


Here's Wilkerson discussing all the ways in which white Southern bosses attempted to prevent black people from moving North:

Well, one of the things that they did was that they reenacted many of the codes that had been used to keep slaves from leaving during the time of slavery. So they reenacted some of those laws. They also created new laws to prevent Northerners from coming south and recruiting black labor to go north. And they exacted these exorbitant fines and license fees that would've made it all but impossible for anyone to afford to come in and recruit blacks to move. 

 In one case, Macon, Georgia, for example, created a law in which anyone who wanted to recruit black labor had to pay a $25,000 licensing fee, and this would've been during World War I. It would have been exorbitant now. It would've been astronomical at that time. And for anyone caught breaking that law, they would have to pay an additional fine and face one year's hard labor. So there were many, many ways that they worked really hard to prevent this labor from leaving. 

 Beyond the actual laws that prevented people from recruiting blacks from leaving the South, they also took to reinstating the peonage laws, in which they could essentially arrest anyone if they were caught trying to buy a train ticket, if they were caught waiting on the platform, and they even boarded trains and would arrest people if they were caught trying to leave. Sometimes in some places they would actually stop the train - keep the train from stopping at a particular station because they saw that there were so many black people there waiting to board and so therefore those people wouldn't get to leave.

The parallel with slavery, here, is chilling. In addition to cheap labor, this is about the preservation of peon class which would allow Southern whites to continue to have faith in the dream of mass aristocracy. Hence it was not enough to ill-treat black people, you had to make sure they stuck around for the ill-treatment. And whereas in the 19th blacks were chased across the underground railroad, in the 20th century they were chased across the actual railroad. 

Check out the interview. I think this should be the book. It's not the Civil War--but it kinda is.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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